Queer Nuns

Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody

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Melissa M. Wilcox
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , May
     2018.
     336 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479820368.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the first English-language academic book on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Melissa Wilcox breaks open their archive with humor and style. Nuns terrorizing the streets of San Francisco with toy machine guns, a congregation blessed by a dildo dipped in poppers, yogurt-filled chalices offered at a funeral to represent the intake of semen, and a “Condom Savior Mass” where participants vow to use protection are just a few of the fabulously vivid and fantastic scenes from Wilcox’s Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody.

An order of “queer nuns” dedicated to the “promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt,” the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were founded on Holy Saturday in 1979 when three gay men decided to take to the streets of San Francisco in discarded nun’s habits (15). They have since grown to over 1,600 professed members, spread across eighty-four houses on four continents. In their white pancake makeup, pre-Vatican II wimples and habits, corsets, fishnets, and no shortage of glitter, the Sisters live out their mission through longstanding activism, including sexuality education ministries, public manifestations and protests, and charitable fundraising.

In the first half of Queer Nuns, Wilcox thoroughly introduces the Sisters, surveys their history, and details their strategy of “serious parody”—the conceptual thread that runs through the book. Wilcox defines serious parody as “a form of cultural protest in which a disempowered group parodies an oppressive cultural institution while simultaneously claiming for itself what it believes to be an equally good or superior enactment of one or more culturally respective aspects of that same institution” (70). A close relative of camp, serious parody “adds the unusual twist of not only parodying or camping but also reclaiming in all seriousness cultural figures that have proven oppressive to queer individuals and communities” (70). In the Sisters’ case, they both camp and critique the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on gender and sexuality and claim in all seriousness to be an order of queer nuns. As Wilcox convincingly shows, the practice of serious parody reveals a “complex and nuanced relationship between religion, queerness, performance, play, and justice” (222).

Methodologically, Wilcox draws heavily from sociology, history, queer studies, and religious studies. In the book’s second half, she provides a complex portrait of the Sisters’ perspectives on gender, race, and religion. Analyzing extended quotations from her interviews, Wilcox indexes the various models the Sisters embrace. While Wilcox’s methodological rigor is most evident in her exposition of these sociological taxonomies, the book comes alive in its analysis of the Sisters’ manifestations. Anchoring the chapter on gender, for example, is a fascinating discussion of a controversy over two Sisters receiving communion at a Roman Catholic church. Wilcox uses the controversy to demonstrate the “powerful reactions that the Sisters can evoke” (132) and how the assumptions underlying these reactions—that the Sisters “intentionally committed sacrilege and made a political statement” (132)—ignore the Sisters’ actual intentions and interpret their gender presentation as “irrevocably sexualized” (136).

In each of these three chapters, Wilcox also examines the limitations of the Sisters’ serious parody. Wilcox does not simply argue that the Sisters’ serious parody queers religion, acknowledging its contingency, potential ineffectiveness, and the critiques levied against it, even from within the order. Wilcox spends little time, however, analyzing the strains of sincerity and authenticity, and the attendant conservativism, underpinning the Sisters’ serious claims to be an order of nuns. 

From its earliest pages, it is clear that Queer Nuns is a very different kind of book, not only in its subject matter but also in its author’s approach. Wilcox dedicates the book to the Sister’s mission and writes it “in memory of” Sisters who died during the course of her research. All royalties from the book go to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and Wilcox speaks openly about the Sisters’ impact on her own life. She concludes the book with extended quotations, “giv[ing] the Sisters the final word” (223). Wilcox also appears throughout the book, most commonly in anecdotes related to her field work but also at times within her analysis. To her credit, Wilcox does not claim be an unbiased arbiter, disembodied ethnographer, or disinterested historian. Still, Queer Nuns will bring up familiar debates between lived religion and the cultural turn in American religious history as well as perennial questions about an author’s relation to their subjects. Wilcox invites the reader to think through these questions in the context of religion and queer studies and gestures toward an approach to academic prose that is not only more upfront about personal and political commitments but is also autobiographical, even confessional, in tone.

Because Queer Nuns is such an interdisciplinary book, it will no doubt leave some readers longing for more detail, different angles of analysis, or alternative theoretical interlocutors. And while Wilcox delights readers with the Sisters’ vibrant anecdotes, her own prose often falls flat in comparison. This may be a risk inherent to all work on queer religion, although the fact that her subjects come through so vividly is to Wilcox’s credit.

Joining a growing body of monographs on queer religion, Queer Nuns will be an instructive and enjoyable text to teach. It draws from a wide range of methods and touches on a number of theoretical questions relevant to current debates in religious studies. It is accessible to undergraduates and particularly suited for classes on religion and sexuality, American religious history, and queer studies in religion. One of Wilcox’s most insightful theoretical interventions is her insistence that the Sisters, and queer subjects more broadly, require scholars to re-examine our assumptions about religion. Wilcox decries the “deeply impoverished nature of existing models for understanding the intersections of religion, queerness, activism, and performance” (222) and suggest that “perhaps religion is more mobile and agile than we generally think” (209). Indeed, Queer Nuns demonstrates not only the presence but the excess of religion within the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, excavating the manifold, complex, contradictory, and surprising ways religion manifests.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Drew Konow is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Melissa M. Wilcox is Professor and Holstein Family and Community Chair of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Queer Women and Religious Individualism, winner of the 2010 Book Award of the ASA’s Sociology of Religion Section.

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